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The Bayreuth of Hobo Pythagoreanism:
The University of Washington’s Harry Partch Festival

3,605 words

The sounds are strange to the Western ear, but undeniably, humanly compelling — a fact borne out by the hundreds of people who flock to Seattle from far flung locales just to hear these instruments.[1]

And flock we did! Constant Readers will recall my tireless promotion of the music of American original Harry Partch,[2] and when news of the festival to be held at the University of Washington (UW) reached us at the palatial offices of Casa Counter-Currents, Greg Johnson and I dug out our passports and, by a typically circuitous route, made our way back to the USA, hopping freights Partch-style, Seattle-bound.

As that fateful announcement said,

Twentieth century American composer Harry Partch created an original musical world and hand-hewn instruments on which to perform his microtonal compositions, which continue to inspire and influence musicians and composers today.[3] This festival celebrates the music and influence of this unique composer, whose collection of hand-made musical instruments are in long-term residence at the UW under the curatorship of composer and Partch scholar Charles Corey. Programs include premiers of new works composed for Partch’s instruments as well as rarely or never-before performed works from the composer’s archives. Other activities, including master classes, demos, and talks, complete this homage to a uniquely American artist.

Already in its first sentence, the announcement hits on an essential feature of this festival: Partch’s hand-made instruments. As the title, “Our Wagner, Only Better” suggested, my essay was an attempt to promote the work of Partch among the Dissident Rightist community by taking Richard Wagner as a point of common interest; simultaneously pointing out their similarities as well as suggesting ways in which Partch was superior, or at least had gone further.

Rather than Wagner’s expansion of the tonal palette of European music, which ultimately produced only the dead-end of atonality, Partch, in the manner of Traditionalists like Julius Evola and Alain Daniélou, rejected such ultimately bourgeois conventions of so-called “high art” altogether and sought a return to the world of natural intonation.[4]

Partch laboured to create new tuning systems based on the pure intervals of the ancient Greeks. These would replace the impure intervals of our equal-tempered system, which he hated with an ethical fervour because they cheated the ear of real beauty. Better to have the true pure colours of nature than the artificial rouge and powder of Western harmony, was his view.[5]

His objection to the standard western classical scale wasn’t so much along the philosophical lines of Schoenberg and other early 20th-century atonalists; he was mainly frustrated by the musical limitations of the equal-tempered octave, so [he] devised a system that split the octave into 43 notes instead.[6]

At the same time, unlike the Traditionalists, Partch, in his stubborn individualism and eccentricity, in both life and work (which I summed up as the pursuit of integrity or oneness), hewed to a true American archetype and was thus a better, or at least more useful, role model for the Dissident Right.[7]

One way I compared and contrasted Wagner and Partch was that while both pursued the idea of a complete work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk), Wagner, with the benefit of royal patronage, created a unique site, Bayreuth, while feeling the need only for one new instrument, the “Wagner tuba”; Partch, who lacked grants and patronage until his very last years, and indeed lived as an actual hobo for the better part of a decade (of which more anon),[8] devoted himself to the creation of new instruments themselves. As he would occasionally remark, reflecting on his past, “I’m a strange kind of hobo, carrying around several tons of instruments.”[9]

With 20/20 hindsight, and acknowledging that no “choice” was involved, Wagner does seem to have had the better part of the deal; while technically, one should only perform Wagner’s operas at Bayreuth, one only needs a large but orthodox orchestra to perform them anywhere. On the other hand, Partch’s music can be played on any suitable stage, but requires the actual Partch instruments, [10] of which there is exactly one set.[11]

His instruments were for years housed at Montclair State University in New Jersey; music professor Dean Drummond, who worked as an assistant to Partch in the 1960s and recorded with him, was the curator, until his death in April 2013. Since 2014, Partch’s entire collection of musical creations has been in residence at UW under the curatorial hand of Charles Corey, affiliate assistant professor of music, and the instruments are presented in public concerts each year.

And so, the Partch Fest, a combination of performances of both Partch and Partch-inspired works, alternating with academic lectures and practical workshops; details are available here. Indeed, like the Ring Cycle, too much perhaps to be taken in as a whole over a single weekend, but here are some reflections.

The opening concert, after bringing us Partch’s “Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales” (1946, 1949), devoted the remainder of its time to Partch-inspired works.[12] Of these, the most interesting and successful was the premier of Crystal Paths by Gareth Knox (Boulez’ Ensemble InterContemporain, Arditti Quartet), a kind of Partchian take on Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, this time using mostly Partch instruments:

The work is basically a series of duets between Knox and, in succession, Partch’s Crychord, Bass Marimba, Surrogate Kithara, Chromelodeon and Harmonic Canon. An interesting twist is that once each duet has been underway for a minute or so, the previous Partch instrument joins in to make it a trio, kind of like having a jealous ex-lover butt in wanting attention.

Knox says “each duo is based on a specific ratio which forms the harmonic and rhythmic basis for the relationship between the instruments”, and his structural metaphor is fluids coalescing into crystals (hence the title). But given that he physically walked around the stage, moving from duet partner to duet partner (his viola being the only portable instrument among six immobile Partch ones), the more obvious metaphor is the Partchian wanderer character ambling from conversation to conversation—a connection to the cantankerous American maverick that works on a literary/symbolic level without trying to conjure up his specific Depression-era hobo persona.[13]

The instruments used in this piece are indeed monumental and immobile, so the use of the wandering player is a striking way to introduce Partch’s demand for corporeality in performance; and the viola d’amore is a brilliant way to show how Partch’s music, despite its supposed avant-garde “weirdness,” connects up with the roots of European music, and is far more traditional – and Traditional – than it might seem to the average concert-goer:

This Baroque-era monstrosity with seven primary strings and additional sympathetic strings has a penchant for microtonal inflections and sustained double- and triple- stops, both of which mesh well with the sound world of the Partch instruments.[14] Many of the duets (which follow one another continuously) featured these sustained multiple stops, usually with microtonal slides, while others featured pizzicato playing and (in the case of the duet with the Harmonic Canon) even a “preparation” in the form of paper inserted between the strings. The piece concluded with a gentle tutti built around a diatonic viola melody.

Further, on a (purely?) personal note, the viola d’amore is the instrument of choice for Serenus Zeitblom, the pedantic narrator of Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus,[15] whose protagonist is also seeking a way out from the dead-end of nineteenth-century European music.[16]

Far less successful was the final and longest work, Richard Karpen’s Ode, which explored the similarities of the Partch instruments with the traditional Vietnamese dan bau and dan tranh. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese performers (Ngô Trà My and Nguyễn Thanh Thùy), though excellent musicians, added the kind of vocal ululations that brought to mind the very worst kind of “avant garde” excesses, thus reviving the image of Partch the weirdo. As Greg Johnson aptly commented, “We’ve been Yoko’d.”

On the contrary, Partch’s music can sometimes sound almost embarrassingly gauche and simple. If your first encounter with Partch was with US Highball, which recounts his experiences as a hobo living in federal work camps during the Great Depression, you might think you’d stumbled across a folk singer with a strangely out-of-tune guitar.

Indeed; and fortunately, the following concert brought us back to the real Partch. At the seemingly strange but really quite appropriate time of mid-morning, curator Charles Corey presented a free concert of the Complete Works for Adapted Guitar and Intoning Voice, consisting of Barstow (1941), December 1942, and yes, U.S. Highball (1942). That “strangely out-of-tune guitar” was the final incarnation of the “Adapted Guitar,” which has six strings, tuned in unison, played with a slide. Here again, the links between Partch and tradition are foregrounded, this time textually: December 1942 sets texts by Ella Young, Ki no Tsurayuki and, yes, Shakespeare, while being bookended by Barstow and U.S. Highball, both setting Partch’s famous collections of hobo inscriptions.[17]

That afternoon’s symposium continued the hobo theme, with Andrew Granade’s “Going Home: The Persistence of Partch’s Hobo Persona”[18] exploring the waxing and waning of the hobo figure in Partch’s work and self-identity, measured against the similar metamorphoses of the hobo in American culture.[19]

I was particularly looking forward to Paul West’s “Pythagoras, Plato and Partch: Breaking the Chains of a Theoretical Art Form,” but found it to be a bit of a bait and switch. West, a Grammy™-nominated microtonal composer and student of “tuning systems and intonation” (as well as, currently, Orthodox theology), did not pursue a critique of Pythagoras so much as use Plato’s Divided Line to argue against constructing any theoretical system of music at all, in favor of “artistic emotional response,” whatever that is.[20]

A far more satisfying demonstration of “artistic response” was given by the last presentation, Stephanie Liapis’ discussion of her attempt to choreograph Partch’s Castor & Pollux, resulting in her work, “Castor & Pollux: a Movement Score.”

While Castor and Pollux is explicitly a piece for dance, it has become one of Partch’s better-known compositions and often is performed as concert music. Opportunities to perform this work live with dance are rare, as Partch’s music is written for unique, sculptural instruments he invented and built himself—Castor and Pollux in particular uses instruments he built between 1946 and 54. With Partch’s instruments now in-residence at the University of Washington School of Music, we are able to present this work as Partch intended, something which has happened less than a dozen times since its premiere 64 years ago![21]

Liapis provided a fascinating insight into the problems of grappling with the physical demands of Partch’s ideal of corporeality in music (his version of the Gesamtkunstwerk), from letting the instruments themselves inspire the choreography, to the unexpected problems of dealing with mike cords and electrical wires. She found it impossible to incorporate the musicians into the dance (they’re far too busy!), but as the dancers are all “dead” by the end of the piece, she realized that this would provide two or so minutes at the end when the intricate and athletic movements of the musicians would in fact take center stage in the audience’s attention, thus realizing Partch’s ideal. However, as she read further into the troubled history of Partch and the various attempts to present Castor and Pollux, she realized he probably would have hated her work, anyway; prickly Partch was not the best of collaborators.

That evening’s concert was devoted almost entirely to Partch’s own works, and the hobo returned again in the second half, a full-(’30s period)-dress orchestration of The Wayward (1955, 1958, 1968), a multi-part work including the Barstow and U.S. Highball from the morning’s Adapted Guitar concert. This was probably the musical highlight of the festival, presenting the closest approximation to Partch’s corporeal or total work of art ideal; sort of as if Sullivan’s Travels had been staged as a microtonal musical.

Corporeality would then provide the link to the next afternoon’s “lecture-recital,” Sarah Kolat’s “Adapted Voice: Interpreting the Vocal Works of Harry Partch.” Kolat, like Liapas, had never heard of Partch before having the opportunity of working with the instruments; she also had never heard Partch, either, and she described the difficulty of learning to adjust both ear and body (corporeality!) to not only Partch’s intonational system but his performance idea of the “intoning voice,” which she finally managed to get the hang of by analogizing it to the Sprechstimme of Schoenberg’s Pierre Lunaire.[22]

The climax of Kolat’s recital was Partch’s setting of “The Potion Scene” (1955) from Romeo and Juliet, and the conjunction of Schoenberg and Shakespeare again called to mind Dr. Faustus, where the composer Adrian Leverkühn, whose musical system seems based on Arnold Schoenberg (much to the latter’s dismay),[23] devotes much attention to an opera based on Love’s Labour’s Lost (libretto by the aforementioned viola d’amore-playing Zeitblom). One wonders how Partch would have set and staged such works, including Leverkühn’s final magnum opus, the Apocalypsis cum figuris (an oratorio after the Revelation of St. John); or if Partch’s music would make a suitable stand-in for Schoenberg in a production of Mann’s novel.[24]

The festival concluded with another concert of Partch and Partch-inspired works, the finale being a reprise of The Wayward.

Despite the exhilaration of the weekend’s events, there was a something of a shadow over the proceedings due to the deaths and illnesses within the Counter-Currents gang, as well as the news that Adam Parfrey, another Partchian iconoclast, had died here in Seattle.[25] Even University of Washington School of Music director Richard Karpen sounded a pessimistic tone:

Noting that the instruments require proper storage and maintenance, he says so far he’s been cobbling together funding from the School of Music, but worries this may be the last Partch festival unless donors step up. “It’s just not sustainable,” he says.[26]

O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! One hopes things don’t get that bad, and that the music of Harry Partch, a true American-style oddball traditionalist, will continue to be heard and to inspire.

 

Notes

[1] Brangien Davis, “Think your music is radical? Now listen to Harry Partch — UW celebrates a maverick composer’s one-of-a-kind collection of invented instruments,” Crosscut.com, May 11, 2018.

[2] See my three-part series on Counter-Currents, “Our Wagner, Only Better: Harry Partch, Wild Boy of American Music,” reprinted in The Eldritch Evola . . . & Others: Traditionalist Meditations on Literature, Art, & Culture; ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014).

[3] For example, see Peter Kelly, “Harry Partch instruments, now at UW, featured on new Paul Simon album,” UW News, June 8, 2016.

[4] For more on the Traditionalists, see “Our Wagner” and the works cited there.

[5] Ivan Hewett, “Harry Partch: The Magic of a California Hobo: Ahead of Two Edinburgh Festival Performances, Ivan Hewett Salutes the Late Composer, Harry Partch, Last in a Great Line of American Mavericks,” The Telegraph, August 28, 2014.

[6] Kate Molleson, “Harry Partch – How Heiner Goebbels Brought Delusion of the Fury to Edinburgh,” The Guardian, Friday, Aug 29, 2014.

[7] Partch, describing his viewpoint, even avails himself of a metaphor that the “Dark Enlightenment” would wield: “’The great cathedral of modern music, erected in trial and labor and pain through most of the Christian era, is a safe and beautiful sanctuary Its one sad aspect is that it seems to be finished. On the other hand,’ he continued, ‘in the wild, little-known country of subtle tones beyond the safe cathedral, the trails are old and dim, they disappear completely, and there are many hazards.’” Quoted from Jeremy Eichler, “Celebrating ‘Harry Partch Legacy’,’” The Boston Globe, September 15, 2012.

[8] “But few others grasped what Partch was after, and when he returned to the United States he couldn’t summon the will to beg for more money. Instead, he decided to drop out, and it wasn’t your feel-good hippie kind of dropping out. He spent much of the next eight years living as a hobo—riding trains, doing manual labor, sleeping in shelters or in the wild, contracting syphilis, working occasionally as a proofreader, and, all the while, rethinking every parameter of music.” Alex Ross, “Off the Rails: A Rare Performance of Harry Partch’s Oedipus,” The New Yorker, April 18, 2005.

[9] Have a (virtual) go on Partch’s instruments yourself, here.

[10] Partch would sometimes point out, somewhat peevishly, that he had merely expanded the available notes, rather than replacing them; you could just as easily play Chopin on one of his instruments as on a piano.

[11] In fact, the Partch instruments are large enough to be considered part of the staging, and the movements of the players are part of the choreography, as we’ll see later; in this way Partch was also creating his own portable Bayreuth. “The constructions look superb (after a performance in Amsterdam in June, the audience crowded around the stage, everyone keen for an up-close ogle). This isn’t an incidental point. Visuals were important to Partch, who believed that the central feature of a set design should be the instruments and the people who play them. It had to do with his concept of ‘corporeal music’, in which a musician’s physicality is integral to performance. ‘The person who plays the instrument is a part of the instrument,’ he said. ‘It is a oneness, a wholeness, and if I have anything to say about it he’s not going to look like an amateur Californian prune-picker.'” Molleson, op. cit.

[12] The ensemble included Knox on viola d’amore, instrument curator Charles Corey on Crychord, Knox’s fellow violist Melia Watras in her secondary career as a Bass Marimba player, Swedish guitarist Stefan Östersjö on Surrogate Kithara, composer and Director of the UW School of Music Richard Karpen on Chromelodeon, and Vietnamese đàn tranh player Nguyễn Thanh Thủy on Harmonic Canon.

[13] Michael Schell, “Garth Knox premiere at University of Washington’s Harry Partch Festival,” Sequenza 21, May 12, 2018.

[14] Knox tuned the lowest string down from the usual A2 to G2 to match the “tonic” of Partch’s microtonal scale.

[15] Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend, trans. John E. Woods (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).

[16] In “Our Wagner” and occasionally after, I’ve mentioned Mann’s novel in relation to Partch; we’ll see another link soon.

[17] These are pithy, rather noir-ish epigraphs left behind by those hitchhiking or riding the rails, rather than the symbolic “hobo code” signs providing directions, warnings, etc. “Here’s wishing all who read this, if they can get a lift, and the best of luck to you. Why in hell did you come, anyway?”

[18] Based on his Harry Partch, Hobo Composer (Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2014, Eastman Studies in Music, Vol. 120).

[19] “A hobo is a migrant worker or homeless vagrant, especially one who is impoverished. The term originated in the Western—probably Northwestern—United States around 1890. Unlike a ‘tramp’, who works only when forced to, and a ‘bum’, who does not work at all, a ‘hobo’ is a traveling worker”—Wikipedia. Partch, like Roark in The Fountainhead, is a proud Aryan who asks only for his freedom, and a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. In these terms, I was wrong to call Griffin and his companions “hoboes” in my essay on the films of Coleman Francis (Coffee? I Like Coffee! The Metaphysical Cinema of Coleman Francis [Amazon Kindle, 2017]); Griffin is, appropriately, a bum (unless rape, robbery, and murder are work), and his two companions are tramps: “Lookin’ for work! We follow the harvest!” The MST3k episode (619) errs too, in saying they are trying to “get to the Hobo Gathering.”

[20] I gently asked West afterwards if he had ever read Alain Daniélou’s Music and the Power of Sound: The Influence of Tuning and Interval on Consciousness (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 1995, first published in India in 1943), but he had not. When I pointed out that Daniélou also rejects Pythagoras but does so from the point of view of a correct intonational system, he simply replied, “Well, everyone thinks they have a system.”

[21] Quoted from her Hatchfund page.

[22] On the other hand, “In 1933, Partch landed a short but interesting job at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles transcribing Native American songs recorded on Edison wax cylinders by the Museum’s founder Charles Lummis. Partch must have been struck by the diffuse and inflected pitch of many of the indigenous singers, whose vocal style was often closer to heightened speech than to Western folk or classical singing. Partch’s own intoning voice technique, honed in early works like the 17 Lyrics by Li Po, owes an obvious debt to this style.” See Michael Schell, “Not Even Harry Partch Can Be An Island,” Second Inversion, May 9, 2018.

[23] “It is well known that Mann was heavily indebted to Theodor W. Adorno’s analysis of Arnold Schoenberg in Philosophy of Modern Music (1949) for his depiction of Leverkühn’s aesthetic education and experiments in composition. . . . [For Mann,] Schoenberg could be said to have hit on the correct diagnosis of the ills of his time, but he prescribed poison to deal with them.” Evelyn Cobley, “Decentred Totalities in Doctor Faustus: Thomas Mann and Theodor W. Adorno,” Modernist Cultures.

[24] It’s not just me: previously cited New Yorker music critic Alex Ross is not only a fan of Partch but also an admitted “Faustus Fanatic.” In the Trekkie spirit, Alex Ross has compiled “An Adrian Leverkühn Companion,” based on Mann’s novel, as well as a potted biography: “Independent of the Second Viennese School, he evolved a non-tonal, at times idiosyncratically serialist language, although he also incorporated parodic imitations of past styles and anticipated certain developments of the postwar avant-garde. The manifest difficulty of his musical idiom hindered public acceptance . . .” He also suggests that “[t]he Apocalipsis makes one think variously of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (the Dance Around the Golden Calf), Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc (the episode for shouting chorus), Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, and early experimental works of John Cage (the use of amplifiers and loudspeakers).” Partch also set an Oedipus Rex for intoning voice and monochord; of course, one must recall that Partch despised Cage.

[25] See Margot Metroland, “’Zine Master Adam: Remembering Adam Parfrey, April 12, 1957–May 10, 2018.”

[26] Davis, op. cit.

2 Comments

  1. gloob
    Posted May 29, 2018 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Yes! This is what I’ve been missing! I’m a musician/composer who has lately been feeling uninspired. I had kind of forgotten about Partch. I first investigated the whole microtonality thing back in the mid-nineties. There wasn’t that much available then on the internet. That didn’t stop me, however, from building my own 19-tone guitar (19 frets per octave). I also made a pretty nice sounding gong, and various other percussion instruments. I invented a two string bass that could be played with the foot. I currently dabble with a fretless guitar in addition to my usual fretted ones. I’ve mostly decided to stick with 12 tone and explore exotic scales instead of microtones, but there is some wonderful music to be found between the 12 we limit ourselves to. I really think that microtones are best done on a keyboard where the pitches are much more stable. Thanks for this article. Enjoyed it greatly. Just what I needed!

  2. Posted May 23, 2018 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    It is good to see some Partch attention in the real world. Thanks for a great article.

    I’ve studied Partch extensively and I could not help but notice that in the article there was little emphasis placed on how greatly voice intonation of Western languages played a role in Partch’s development of his 43 tones to the “octave”.

    But that just leaves more room for another great article, doesn’t it?

    Carry on

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